There’s a famous quote by Emily Dickinson I frequently come back to: “Wonder—is not precisely Knowing / And not precisely Knowing not— / A beautiful but bleak condition / He has not lived who has not felt—.”
I think that’s the best way to begin to describe Memorial, Bryan Washington’s follow up to his debut short-story collection, Lot. Memorial, is at its core, a love story, but it’s so much more: it’s about the in-between spaces of love and not loving, of knowing and not knowing, of learning how to be, and how to be OK with just being. Despite the issues the book grapples with, the writing is funny—joyous, even—and yet at times, it's devastating too, weaving in descriptions of food to paint the silences shared among characters a different hue.
I had the pleasure of talking to Bryan Washington about Memorial, and along the way, he recommended five books.
Daniel Modlin: What theme did you land on?
Bryan Washington: I wanted to recommend five books around being OK. I really admire when folks are able to pull off that amorphousness in a book without being reductive or prescriptive or forcing an ending that’s really clear cut when you don’t need it.
DM: I think Memorial does that really well. This ‘knowing not’ idea runs through all of the tension in Mike and Benson’s lives. There’s this tension throughout the entire book where all of the characters throughout are on the fringe of relationships - maybe it’s like existing on the precipice, and being OK with that.
BW: I didn’t want Memorial to be held hostage by the capital letter Moments that take place in a relationship, when so much of those characters' relationships are defined by the silences and the missed connections and what’s lost in translation.
A book I really admire for this is Helen Oyeymi’s Gingerbread. It concerns the search for home and searching for what a person is or who the person is when they’re in between context. So we’re looking for the context in which they’re most comfortable and she does it by weaving fantastical elements with real ones in a way that’s not forced or heavy handed. The world we get is a singular one, one that you want to stay in.
DM: That’s definitely similar to the in between world Mike and Benson exist in. I’m interested in, you know, I’m assuming you wrote Memorial before all of ~this~ and so I’d love to hear about the timeliness of it, of a book that is aiming to be OK with not knowing, in a time when we kind of know nothing.
BW: It’s really strange to see a certain kind of relevance emerge when it wasn’t intended at all.
The next book is Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier. She’s super brilliant — the voice of the protagonist is just so good and she’s negotiating so much — her sexuality, her race, her financial situation — over the course of the book and it doesn’t really come to any easy conclusions, but it feels like every moment is earned and inevitable. It’s one I recommend when someone asks me what they should read next.
DM: Your characters, Benson and Mike, are negotiating so much, and they’re doing it on opposite sides of the world.
BW: What was really important for me in writing Memorial was I didn’t want people walking away from the book thinking this relationship didn’t work because Mike fucked up or like some collaboration of the two. I just wanted it to be people on the page, working through it, figuring it out. It took a lot of drafting that didn’t make it on the page to see not only who they were but also who they wanted to be, and seeing if they could.
The next book is Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. It’s another one that takes a lot of chances but all of them feel earned. And I think the biggest risk it takes is that it asserts joy is something that can be found, even if it’s a long journey, even if it’s not a clear cut path. I think there’s a lot of contemporary American literary fiction that views the idea of joy as cliche. And I think the way Gyassi works around this, and it isn’t clear cut, it isn’t clean, but she’s able to find humor in the journey — it just felt like a really remarkable boot to get to read.
DM: You’re talking a lot about how the arc towards finding happiness and joy isn’t linear and I think the structure of Memorial was unique and interesting, can you tell me about your decision making there?
BW: I was really keen on allowing it to have breathing room, and I knew that while there was a certain emotional pocket that I wanted to reach toward, I didn’t know what that actually would look like on the page. So establishing the stable through line of the will they won’t they, was necessary. And while the book suggests you don’t really need to find the answers to those questions, in a lot of ways that’s what’s driving it as well.
DM: I thought it was interesting that in a way, this is a love story and yet, it puts two people, lovers, on opposite sides of the planet and they're really not taking up any of the same page space.
BW: Allowing the characters to exist in different spaces geographically helped me explore them individually and not so much as part of a unit. So that when they do come back together, the reader, the audience has a pretty firm idea of who they are, individually and how they see the relationship respectively.
A book that is really structurally adventurous is There Has to Be a Knife. It explores the ways a man is trying to figure out the questions of identity and who he is within a certain context, this time being Toronto, and the ways in which those contexts can exert themselves on your own personal arc, even if you shy away from it.
There Has to Be a Knife
DM: OK, so what’s the last book?
BW: The last book I’d like to recommend is the book I gift the most and I find myself constantly going back to. It’s called Home Remedies and is a collection of short stories. Every story is a world in itself. Within the stories are characters searching for something — whether its community, romantic relationships, stability, a sense of identity — and it really extrapolates the structures that each of the characters lives in. Some of the narratives may appear fractured, but everything is so meticulously thought out. Each of their arcs and their journeys are models and you know that really feels true to life and gratifying.
DM: So I read that Benson and Mike started as a short story. And I’m curious, you know, why them? Why not something from Lot? Why these characters?
BW: I think because I didn’t know where they would end up.